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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 12:48 GMT
What happened to the Robot Age?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Sony's decision to ditch its Aibo robotic dog, along with its entire robot development team, is a reminder that we are still a long way from the age of automated domestic servants. Architects of the Robot Age have been busy rethinking the future.

In the 1980s you could hardly move for suggestions that the Robot Age was upon us.

From Metal Mickey, the wisecracking, head-spinning star of his eponymous sitcom, to the stylishly choreographed Fiat advert in which the Italian carmaker smugly revealed how it had apparently dispensed with humans altogether in the production of one model. The tagline was an advertising classic: Handbuilt by Robots.

Every other week, in those days, it seemed the Tomorrow's World team would unveil an exciting breakthrough in the world of robotics. Cool people in nightclubs even took to dancing like the things.

We seemed to be teetering on a new era in which humans would play second-fiddle to computer-guided pneumatic creatures, which could doubtless play first fiddle better than the lead violinist of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

Then what?

Sony Aibo
Robot Paws: The Sony Aibo, now deceased
While computer technology advanced in leaps and bounds during the Nineties and Noughties, it remained firmly rooted in stationary beige boxes under desks.

Desperate housewives, who'd been banking on robot servants to take the weight off their feet, have largely been disappointed.

Self-guiding vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers can now be bought off-the-peg. But, by most accounts, their efficacy when compared to human effort, is limited.

Honda's Asimo robot, which looks like a scaled-down Star Wars storm trooper, can walk, run, greet people and go up stairs. But it remains, for the time being at least, a research project.

In terms of a real walking, talking everyday robot for the home, Sony's Aibo robot dog, which retails at about 1,200, is perhaps the closest it gets.

Back to basics

But on Thursday the Japanese electronics firm announced that, after six years and sales of 150,000 units, it is putting Aibo to sleep as part of a belt-tightening exercise that sees the closure of Sony's entire robotics unit.

Robotics is going to be a massive, massive business, be it in toys, construction, or leisure and entertainment - but it'll be market-led
Prof Chris Melhuish
It might seem as though the robot revolution we were promised 20 years ago has hit an almighty malfunction.

On the outskirts of Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in a ground-floor flat in which two customised robots are the only full-time residents, a team of researchers have been grappling with just this issue.

The University of Hertfordshire's human-robot interaction research group has, along with most other robot development programmes, gone back to basics.

"For a long time people thought the summit of human intelligence was our capacity for problem solving, IQ tests and the like. So in developing robots they designed them to do these complex tasks, like playing chess," says Prof Kerstin Dautenhahn, the group's leader and professor of artificial intelligence.

"But now people are saying that its humans' ability to deal with complex social relationships that's made us intelligent. Primatologists suggest this is what has made us smarter."

Feigning sensitivity

So while the world gasped at the sight of a robot defeating a chess Grandmaster, no one had thought to equip these mobile lumps of metal with the fundamental social skills that humans take for granted in each other.

Asimo and Duke of York
And what do you do? Honda's Asimo hits the Royal circuit
These days, the watchword in robotics is "multi-disciplinary" - bringing together people from sociology and psychology backgrounds, as well as the technical folk, to build a robot that could be a true domestic goddess.

Hence the research team decamping from the laboratory to a humble flat, where it has let its robots loose on 700 volunteer subjects.

The team has been studying issues such as personal space, how people expect a robot to approach them, or even get their attention.

"What's the best way for a robot to interrupt you if you are reading a newspaper - by gesturing with its arms, blinking its lights or making a sound," says Prof Dautenhahn.

"We've this notion of the personalised robot companion and we are seriously looking into people's likes and dislikes and how they can be useful to people."

Prof Chris Melhuish, who is overseeing similar works at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, agrees.

"The dynamics of interactions are incredibly important. It doesn't have feelings of course, but must have the techniques and wherewithal to appear to have feelings that are sensitive to humans," says Prof Melhuish.

Evil-natured robots

"Suppose a robot is giving directions. If I was to do that, and you became confused, I'd be able to see that in your face and adjust my directions accordingly. So a robot also needs to be able to see your face and determine your befuddlement."

Kheng Lee Koay, Kerstin Dautenhahn and Mick Walters
The University of Hertfordshire research team
Half-way through its four-year research project, the Hertfordshire team, which feeds into a larger European project on robotic research, has made a number of important discoveries.

For example while most people are happy enough for a robot to pad around the house rather as a human would, a substantial minority are uncomfortable with it lingering in close proximity.

Inevitably, everyone has their own expectations. And the bad press robots tend to get, particularly through Hollywood films, meant that for some folk at least, robots need a softly-softly approach.

Movies like I Robot, Terminator and Blade Runner have helped instil the idea in some people, at least, that robots are a malign, even murderous, force.

By comparison, the two robots used by Prof Dautenhahn's team are almost entirely functional and benign. They don't even have names - that would threaten the dispassionate nature of the team's research.

In fact, they look no more advanced than the prototype robots that were wheeled out on Tomorrow's World all those years ago. But in this case, that's missing the point.

While the technical challenges to perfecting servile domestic robots are still vast, history shows that what humans expect of them are every bit as important.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

With regard to "self-guiding vacuum cleaners", I've had one for six months and it's a boon. The house has never been so clean. The problem with these devices is marketing, most folks don't even realise they are available or how cheap they are compared to non-robotic household appliances.
Ashley Van Haeften, London

I would suggest that our dislike of robots in the home is down to the fact that as the superior race, we need to have a certain amount of control over what a robot does. A human butler's aim is to be invisible, but be prepared to serve. But who needs a butler - robotic or otherwise? Like the robotic vacuum, robots need to invisible so that in time we can forget about carrying out that mundane task ever again. I don't think we need interaction, just something to take over the tasks we perform regularly.
Craig, Blackburn, England

It seems that the robot designers are concentrating on things that are not priorities for potential consumers. Robots for the home will only be purchased when they can perform dull tasks properly without supervision. If I had the money to buy a robot to do the vacuum-cleaning, I wouldn't want to have to pay a cleaner to do the dusting as well; I'd want the robot to do it. Similarly a lawn-mowing robot would also need to be able to dig flower beds and remove weeds without damaging the plants I want to grow. The level of 'hand-eye' coordination required for these simple tasks is beyond the capabilities of current robots and until that problem is solved no-one will be interested in whether they appear to have any empathy with humans, how they communicate or what they look like.
Chris, Gravesend, UK

Surely the age of robots is with us; they are just so common that we don't recognise them as such. Humanoid robots are a fantasy that may never be useful and common. However, a computer chip controlling mechanical labour saving devices abound. Nearly everything around us has a processor controlling mechanics even my humble Toaster.
Aidan Hall, London

Spending an inordinate amount of time altering robots to suit our needs forgets the adaptability of humans. We could adapt to suit the robots far more easily than altering their interaction to suit the human bias, although a happy compromise will probably be the solution.
Joe Round, Nottingham

Took them long enough to work this out - evidently they never saw Short Circuit in the 80s!
Andrew Watkins, Glasgow, Scotland

Robots can already be engineered to be able to duplicate most human physical capabilities (walk, run, swing, dance etc.) but the problem lies in the mental capabilities. A pocket calculator can do math better and quicker than any human but asking a calculator to make a cup of tea is useless. The factor which demands the most research and is holding robotics back is the development of Artificial Intelligence/Artificial Life. Without a brain inside, it's just an expensive toy.
Matt Stockton, Vienna, Austria

I find it interesting that you mention "I, Robot" but not the "The Bicentennial Man". Both movies are based on Isaac Asimov's same-named stories. In "The Bincentennial Man" robots are shown in a very positive manner. I find it strange that people are afraid of robots, especially that we will be able to build them with safeguards. I wish people can be built that way. Lou
Lou G., Toronto, Canada

Is there any real need for a humanoid robot? I'm sure one day there will be many around, but for most tasks in our everyday lives, I see computer technology leading the way. With technologies such as voice activation, motion sensing and guidance systems available, what use would a modern robot actually be? And what will we do with ourselves while the robots take over our everyday tasks? Personally I think the best use would be to assist physically-challenged people.
Steven Peters, Birmingham, UK

Its quite clearly George Galloway's fault. Having demonstrated in the Big Brother house the full extent of what's possible in 'robotics', Sony have quite sensibly decided that there's nothing further they can add.
Andrew Magowan, London

I have a first-generation Aibo. It's supposed to learn and modify its behaviour. It has a pressure pad on top of its head which when pressed is supposed to give it pleasure and to which it reacts. In the four years I've had it never learned to bash its own head against the wall!!
Ian Haines, London

Here I am - brain the size of a planet and their killing off robot dogs. Oh well not long to go for me then.
Marvin,

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